Commemorating an MP's furious outburst on behalf of seafarers

Article Featured Image

Medallion struck to commemorate MP Samuel Plimsoll's outburst in the House of Commons in defense of Seafarers.
Designed by Auguste Chevalier. 52.111.1

Medals are struck for all sorts of reasons, to celebrate bravery, commemorate important events, honour people’s contributions, but my personal favourite reason for a medal being struck has to be the reason behind this one in our collections. The man whose profile you see here is the Liberal MP and great campaigner for seafarers, Samuel Plimsoll. The medal was struck to commemorate the day, after years of campaigning and frustration, that he completely lost his composure and his temper, broke parliamentary protocol, shouted, heckled the Prime Minister, and shook his fist at various members of the House of Commons, terming them villains!

So why am I impressed by an MP behaving badly and why did this outburst merit a laudatory medal? It’s because this MP had good cause to be angry and had in fact had his patience sorely tried over many years as he worked tirelessly to better the lives of seafarers.

Bronze medallion showing a 19th century sailing ship in trouble in rough seas over the words 'COFFIN SHIP'

Reverse of the medallion showing a 'Coffin Ship'.
If you look closely you may just be able to make out the skull and crossbones on the sail, used here as a sign of death not piracy. 52.111.1

If you look at the image on the back of this medal you can see a coffin ship, and these were just as grim as they sound. Poorly maintained, overloaded, and over-insured, coffin ships were a result of ship owners caring too much for their own profits and too little for the lives of their crews.

Plimsoll had a history of social campaigning and from the mid 1860s he had been engaged in trying to put an end to these coffin ships. He sought many improvements for seafarers from improving their food to opposing the principle of deck loading (loose goods stored as the term suggests on the deck, a rather hazardous way of increasing a ship’s cargo capacity and profitability), but what he’s best known for is the campaign for a load line.

A ship’s load line is brilliantly simple idea, a line is painted on the ship’s hull to show how deep in the water she should sit to ensure she is not overloaded. It is a practice used to this day and commonly known as the Plimsoll Line.

None of his demands seem particularly onerous, maintain ships properly, don’t overload them with cargo, feed seafarers decent quality food. Yet Plimsoll’s campaign met with frustration after frustration as he sought governmental backing. By 22 July 1875, the day when Parliament was due to abandon any bills it felt couldn’t be passed before summer recess, Plimsoll had been campaigning for seafarers for over a decade. Among the outstanding bills on this day was the Merchant Shipping Bill. The bill fell far short of Plimsoll’s demands, it covered neither deckloading nor a load line, but he felt that it was at least a beginning and that:

“There is enough humanity and knowledge in the House of Commons to change it into a good measure” - The Plimsoll Sensation, Nicolette Jones

He’d soon change his mind on the ‘humanity’ of the Commons as Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli announced that he regretted the Merchant Shipping Bill could not be passed before the recess. Plimsoll, having been thwarted numerous times before, had foreseen the possibility the Bill might be deferred and in readiness had written and had printed a protest. His wife Eliza was poised in the Ladies Gallery with copies of this for distribution to reporters in the Press Gallery below.

Plimsoll’s personal response however seems too vehement and aggressive to have been exactly what he had planned. He implored the Prime Minister “not to consign some thousands of living men to an undeserved and sudden death”, then proceeded to make accusations against ship owning MPs! His impassioned pleas reached a veritable shout as he cited the case for the bill. The Speaker tried to intervene but Plimsoll would not be silenced. He strode into the centre of the floor, in front of the mace opposite the Speaker’s chair, stamped his foot and is described as crying out at the top of his voice:

“I am determined to unmask the villains that send out seamen to death and destruction!” - The Plimsoll Sensation, Nicolette Jones

As calls for order rang out in the noisy room, Plimsoll stood his ground shaking his fist at members who shouted at him. The Speaker was now on his feet and calmly requested that Plimsoll withdraw his application of the word ‘villain’ to members of the house. Plimsoll refused and slapped his written protest down on the table beside the mace before eventually being persuaded to leave by his friends. Eliza then distributed his written protest to the press.

MPs behaving badly is perhaps not too shocking to us, but in 1875 the House of Commons was even more ruled by protocol than it is now and Plimsoll’s behaviour was widely reported with papers publishing his protest in full. His passionate outburst certainly hadn’t harmed his cause though, quite the reverse. Much of the press, and public opinion, were shown to be pretty firmly on his side. At a public meeting in Sheffield it was remarked:

“If one Member went mad every year upon some similar subject, the legislation of this country would proceed a great deal better. If Mr Plimsoll is mad, the sooner he bit a few other MPs the better.” - The Plimsoll Sensation, Nicolette Jones

Disraeli was left seriously worried by the way public opinion was turning against him and by 28 July the government had hurriedly knocked up a stop gap bill which authorised appointment of surveyors empowered to stop ships if they had reason to believe them unseaworthy. This became law on 10 August 1875. It was replaced in 1876 by a new act that carried on the provisions of this first hasty legislation and took them further including, finally, a load line.

Plimsoll was at last victorious, but he wasn’t done. The 1876 load line was set by ship owners themselves, leaving plenty of room for abuse, it would be another 14 years campaigning before load lines were standardised and regulated by the Board of Trade. The Plimsoll Line has now been in place on British ships for over a century and the annual death toll at sea has never again reached the horrific heights of the days of the coffin ships. Over time this means thousands of lives saved through simple, sensible action. Personally, I think that was well worth Mr Plimsoll losing his temper for.